Dec. 16, 2022
Creating impact in the community inspires academic entrepreneurs
The goals that Dr. Mehdi Mohammadi Ashani, PhD, and Dr. Stephanie Bishop, PhD, share for their research inspired them to become academic entrepreneurs.
“We are going from invention in the lab to innovation and commercialization,” Mohammadi says. “Seeing my product helping to improve patient outcome and making an impact is really important for me as a scientist.”
“We both have the same vision of what we want to see done with our research,” Bishop adds. “We want our research to benefit not only other academics. We want it to benefit the public in the broader community.”.
Mohammadi and Bishop, both postdoctoral fellows in the Department of Biological Sciences in the Faculty of Science, are participating in the University of Calgary’s Academic Entrepreneurs in Residence program.
The program offers mentorship and practical support for academic researchers who want to move their emergent research ideas toward practical solutions that impact the community.
Work inspires Fluidome startup
Mohammadi and Bishop are members of the research group led by Dr. Ian Lewis, PhD, associate professor and Alberta Innovates Transitional Health Chair in Metabolomics.
Through their work in the Lewis lab, the pair developed an innovative metabolomics-based technology and analytical process that motivated them to create a Calgary-based startup company, Fluidome Inc., to commercialize and market their innovation.
The Lewis Research Group focuses on metabolic analysis of human pathogens, including developing rapid diagnostic tools for infectious diseases. The group utilizes the Calgary Metabolomics Research Facility, specifically designed to investigate the metabolism of infectious diseases.
Metabolomics provides detailed information in real time of many biochemicals present in a sample. Often, metabolomics studies identify, quantify and map each metabolite in the system (metabolites are small molecules, the products of metabolism). A sample could come from an organ, tissue, biological fluid (such as blood, urine or saliva), cell, organism, plant, food, wastewater or crude oil.
“For example, metabolomics could distinguish between a healthy patient’s sample and a diseased or infected sample,” Mohammadi says.
Simpler, faster and less expensive diagnostic tool
However, a problem with conventional metabolomics techniques is that they involve complex, multi-step procedures that require an expert in metabolomics to run. Also, obtaining and interpreting results typically takes days to months.
Mohammadi, whose background is in biomedical engineering, joined the Lewis Research Group in 2017 to focus on developing new metabolomics-based ways to rapidly diagnosis bloodstream infection. He says,
I developed kits that could simplify metabolomics workflow procedure and be operated by a technician who isn’t an expert in metabolomics, for both discovery and diagnosis applications.
Bishop, who started her postdoc in 2020 and whose background is in analytical chemistry, developed more quantitative and standardized procedures for metabolomics analysis.
Their company, Fluidome, designs and builds high-quality metabolomics-based platforms and software that streamline and accelerate metabolomic analysis workflows, at a fraction of the cost of existing workflows.
Platform reduces diagnosis time
The pair have tested their EasyOmics Platform to diagnose a bloodstream infection in more than 500 patient samples. “We were able to reduce the time of diagnosis from three to five days to five hours,” Mohammadi notes.
The entrepreneurs have developed a prototype kit that can be used by researchers with minimal metabolomics expertise to map each metabolite in a sample, and handle up to 2,000 samples per day.
In medicine, the kit could be used to rapidly diagnose such things as infection, cardiovascular health, neurological problems, cancer, and issues with the microbiome (the body’s natural microbial populations and environment).
Fluidome’s kits also have potential application in a wide variety of fields, including nutrition, agriculture, pharmacology, and the oil and gas industry. A kit called Crosstalker can facilitate complex microbiome projects.
Mentors and programs support academic entrepreneurs
Mohammadi and Bishop say Lewis is very supportive of any commercial ventures spun out of his laboratory, especially those related to infectious disease diagnostic tools.
Lewis is the director of the Alberta Centre for Advanced Diagnostics (ACAD), launched in November 2022. ACAD connects early-stage innovators with the facilities, equipment and health-care contacts needed to efficiently prototype new infectious disease diagnostics and evaluate them against established tools.
Through the Academic Entrepreneurs in Residence program and Innovate Calgary, Mohammadi and Bishop also have access to mentors who’ve experienced the entrepreneurial journey themselves.
“The greatest benefit has just been trusting other researchers who have gone through a really similar process of converting their academic research into an entrepreneurial enterprise,” Bishop says.
Completely different set of skills
They also have taken advantage of the various programs offered by UCalgary for budding academic entrepreneurs, such as the e2i program, the TENET i2i program, and the Creative Destruction Lab-Rockies program (to accelerate the commercialization of tech startups), housed at the Haskayne School of Business.
Being an entrepreneur means learning a completely different set of skills from that of an academic researcher, they say.
“You need to get out of your comfort zone and deal with fears of taking risks, of rejection, and of failing,” Mohammadi says. “You need to develop that entrepreneurial mindset.”
“This journey has been an amazing way of gaining those skills that I can apply to different situations in the future,” Bishop says.
As for the greatest satisfaction of being an entrepreneur, Mohammadi says: “It’s getting progress and working with an efficient team, and seeing your product making an impact that could lead to improved patient outcomes.”
Says Bishop: “For me, the biggest satisfaction is creating impact in the community. When you control the outcomes of your research through commercialization, you have a direct say on how your research will benefit the public.”